Herbie Hancock, one of the all-time great jazz musicians, remembers when he played a wrong chord on the piano while performing with Miles Davis in Paris years ago. Hancock was horrified by his mistake but “Davis didn’t hear the chord as wrong. He heard it as something new and went with it. There was no negative judgment,” said Hancock in an interview on National Public Radio.
Last December, I experienced similar newness birthed in imperfection when I was too ill to decorate for the holidays and a friend offered to decorate for me. The only opening in her schedule, however, was a time when I wouldn’t be home. “No problem,” she said. “Tell me where your decorations are stored and the house will be finished by the time you get back.”
That evening I stepped into a home that radiated hospitality and Christmas welcome, my home. Since my friend didn’t know where each angel and bit of greenery traditionally went, she had put them wherever she wanted. I no longer felt badly about not being well enough to decorate my own home. My “imperfection” let in the light of newness from a good friend. How could one ask for a better gift?
Perfection certainly has an important place in life–when building the new San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, making a souffle, or developing a website for the Affordable Care Act, to name a few examples.
On the other hand, if we try for perfection in every part of life and beat ourselves or others up for not achieving it, our drive for perfection causes damage. It constrains us and strains our relationships. It fills backpacks with impossible expectations, and our lives with unnecessary judgment and stress.
One of the unexpected gifts of my life having turned upside down a few years ago is that I am constantly invited (or should I say, challenged) to accept vulnerability and imperfection in myself, and to welcome the grace and newness imperfections make possible. In the words of Canadian composer and singer, Leonard Cohen,
The birds they sang at the break of day
Start again I heard them say
Don’t dwell on what has passed away
or what is yet to be…
Ring the bells that still can ring,
Forget your perfect offering,
There is a crack in everything,
That’s how the light gets in.
From “Anthem” by Leonard Cohen